Carcieri says he's fighting to make Rhode Island better
PROVIDENCE, R.I. --Gov. Don Carcieri paints himself as a white knight jousting with unions, special interest groups and the Democratic-led General Assembly on behalf of the people of Rhode Island.
The popular Republican governor is basing much of his bid for a second term on his image as a reformer. He blames the Democrats who have long dominated state government for a series of ethics scandals and says his opponent, Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, is unlikely to act as a check on his own party.
Fogarty has criticized Carcieri for budgets that regularly run shortfalls, a growing number of people who lack health insurance, college tuition increases and high property taxes. Carcieri said he has controlled state spending, reduced taxes and improved education.
But, he said, his administration is just as likely to be remembered for what didn't happen: more special deals between lawmakers and corporate lobbyists, private development financed by taxpayer dollars, and plush union contracts for state workers.
"Everybody's got some deal going on," Carcieri told The Associated Press. He said he spends a lot of time "stiff arming the special interests and trying to stop the bad stuff."
Two years ago, Carcieri vetoed a bill that would have given $20 million in tax credits to former state lawmaker Vincent Mesolella Jr. to build a privately owned hotel in downtown Providence. Last year, he vetoed a bill that would have let child-care workers unionize and negotiate wages with the state, possibly costing it millions of dollars.
Carcieri, elected in 2002, is a cost-conscious retired corporate executive who says the state is not getting an adequate return on the money it spends on education and has irresponsibly let spending on social services skyrocket.
He promised Rhode Islanders good schools during his first campaign, and he says he's made progress toward improving them: The state has a new math and science curriculum for its public schools and a new testing program to measure student and school progress. He's pushed investment in charter schools, math and science education and English as a second language programs.
"Kids can't succeed if they can't read and write," said Carcieri, a one-time math teacher.
He has pushed to curtail state spending on social services, drawing criticism this year from advocates for the poor who were unhappy with his budget proposal. It would have cut welfare benefits, the number of children eligible for the state's health insurance program for the poor and funding available to a number of services for the elderly and disabled.
Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, said that controversy is unlikely to hurt Carcieri's chances for re-election.
"For every vote he loses from that constituency, he'll pick up two from people who are tired of higher taxes and government spending," she said.
Moakley said voters like the personable Carcieri, but also see him as "somewhat hard-nosed."
The governor admits he takes a businessman's approach to state issues. He supported the General Assembly's passage of an alternative flat income tax that will benefit the state's top earners as a way to help Rhode Island compete with Massachusetts. Many executives have been unwilling to move and bring jobs here because Rhode Island has had a higher tax rate, he said.
"We're not a wealth-friendly state," Carcieri said.
He spells out his opposition to a proposal to build a privately run casino in West Warwick in financial terms: The state receives about 60 percent of the income from the Lincoln Park and Newport Grand slot parlors. It would receive a far smaller share from a casino built by the Narragansett Indian Tribe and
"I've spent my life analyzing business deals," he said. "I think this is bad."
Carcieri has vetoed gaming legislation in the past. This year, he asked the state Supreme Court to review a ballot question that would amend the state constitution to permit construction of a casino. He says now that his request was not intended to keep the question off the ballot but to ensure it would be constitutional if voters approve it.
"I think it's time for people to vote on this thing because everybody's kind of fed up with it," Carcieri said.
The governor has been a strong proponent of voter initiative as a means of letting citizens put questions on the ballot. Like Fogarty, he supports term limits for lawmakers as an additional means of reform.
Carcieri said his goal today remains the same as when he ran for office four years ago.
"I wanted to make Rhode Island a star," he said.